If there’s one word that summed up the concept of Pixar’s Lightyear when it was first announced, it’s confusion. The Disney subsidiary’s 26th animated film is one that can be framed in many ways: it’s a Toy Story spin-off, but one that doesn’t feature the iconic toys; it’s also kind of a semi-prequel, it’s the movie that inspired Buzz Lightyear’s toy series in the Toy Story franchise; and to complicate matters, it’s an in-universe Pixar movie—one utterly adored by Andy, Toy Story’s human protagonist—and then clearly meta in its approach.
– Release cinemas on Friday 17 June
– 26th Pixar Animated Movie
– Focuses on Buzz Lightyear’s origin story
– Buzz voiced by former Marvel star Chris Evans
– Directed by Angus MacLane; produced by Galyn Susman
None of the above, however, detracts from the joyous, intergalactic romp that is Lightyear. Pixar’s latest feature film project is a flying, cosmic action-adventure film that’s as much a celebration of classic sci-fi as it is of the Toy Story series. It’s a bit of a formula at times, but Lightyear’s thrilling action, humor and heart help it shine as one of the brightest stars in the Pixar sky.
To the infinite…
Lightyear tells the story of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans), a Space Ranger who leads humanity’s exploration of the universe before becoming the legendary figure known to the public. However, when a certain mission goes awry, Buzz inadvertently leaves himself, his commander Alisha Hawthorne (Udo Azuba), and his ship’s 1,200-strong crew in a hostile world 4.2 million light-years from Earth.
With the ship’s hyperspeed crystal — the fuel cell that enables intergalactic travel — destroyed after the Buzz ship crashes the ship on the alien-infested planet, he vows to make amends. With the help of the crew’s scientists and his loyal AI cat friend Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz creates a new experimental hyperspeed crystal with the goal of getting everyone home safely.
However, when Buzz and Sox embark on a test flight to test the crystal’s stability, they unknowingly travel to the same planet they were stranded on, but decades in the future. Desperate to return to the present, Buzz and Sox join forces with an ambitious but inexperienced crew led by Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha Hawthorne’s granddaughter, to aid his quest. But with the menacing robot overlord Zurg (James Brolin) leading a rebellion against the descendants of his former team, a conflicted Buzz must choose whether to travel back to the past or continue fighting alongside his newfound friends.
For a story about a character hurled into the distant future, the casting of former marvel movie star Chris Evans as the titular hero feels like a natural fit. Evans is no stranger to playing a man from the era – after all, he played Steve Rogers/Captain America, a character born in 1918 who steps into the 21st century at the end of Cap’s first solo film. Given the initial furore over his casting — fans were upset that Buzz Allen’s original voice actor wasn’t chosen to portray the character’s “live-action” (in the context of the film) incarnation — there were many who didn’t think Evans was the right person for the job.
Fans with lingering concerns need not worry. Evans delivers a performance that is not only as comical and melodramatic as Allen’s, but also a tribute to the way the latter originally brought Buzz to life. Evans strikes a delicate balance between honoring Allen’s portrayal through his oratorical style, and putting a fresh, nuanced spin on the iconic Space Ranger. This is a Buzz as stoic and uncompromising as Toy Story’s version, but whose humanity is explored more deeply thanks to Evans’ emotional performance.
As great as Evans’ Buzz is, the character is unsurprisingly staged by Sohn’s Sox. Buzz’s robotic feline sidekick is the star of the show, delivering the film’s biggest laugh and charming her way through the 100-minute runtime. Sox’s rapport with Buzz feels natural and is distinguished by his now iconic friendship with Woddy in the Toy Story franchise. Based on its scene-stealing display, expect Sox to be one of the must-have toys this coming Christmas.
Fall with style
However, Lightyear is much more than his main character and cute sidekick. In true Pixar fashion, it’s a visually stunning film; a cosmic kaleidoscope of colours, a firm and cinematic animation style and dazzling space travel sequences. The decision to release Lightyear in IMAX format — the first animated film in theater history to receive such an honor — only adds to its awe-inspiring aesthetic. In particular, Lightyear’s lightspeed sequences take advantage of the increased 1:43:1 aspect ratio, uniformly enhancing the dazzling tones and visual scope of the film – the space is huge after all.
A film that focuses on space travel, even one that is animated, requires a certain amount of scientific authenticity. It’s nice that Pixar worked closely with NASA to capture many of the practical and theoretical elements of intergalactic exploration, albeit recreating them through a cartoon-like lens. See how Buzz uses real-world algebra and math to get his retrofuturistic spaceship back on course, amid a funny back and forth with his Alexa-esque navigation system, in one scene is a perfect example – it’s a satisfyingly fun moment wrapped in real science that encapsulates the tone and atmosphere that Lightyear’s creative team has gone for.
Lightyear also draws a lot of inspiration from some of cinema’s most beloved science fiction classics. From Star Wars and The Terminator to Aliens and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lightyear pays tribute to the genre’s groundbreaking productions. There are subtle references to more recent sci-fi films, such as Interstellar and Gravity, with equally pleasing effect, while Toy Story fans will be pleased to hear that there are also countless nods to Buzz from Pixar’s most recognizable film series. Buzz’s legendary catchphrase is part of the proceedings, of course, and there’s more in the same vein; these callback requests shouldn’t come as a surprise, but they’re satisfying additions nonetheless.
If there’s one aspect where Lightyear falls short, it’s the film’s somewhat predictable plot threads. There’s a fascinating twist as the film’s second act enters its third and final phase, plus some additional revealing content during Buzz’s hyperspeed crystal test flight, which delivers engaging and fairly jarring moments. Other than those moments, Lightyear largely follows the same story rhythms that other Pixar films have, with similar plot threads and devices to what we’ve seen in many other Pixar productions.
Needless to say, that’s not a bad thing – Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios of all time, and much of its success is due to its award-winning movie-making formula. Nevertheless, figuring out where Lightyear’s next plot will go is a little too easy. Add to that a few overused slapstick moments – the grapevine joke, as seen in the trailer gets old pretty quickly – and Lightyear isn’t immune to getting off course every now and then.
Lightyear is another sublime entry in Pixar’s back catalog. It’s propelled into the stratosphere – and beyond – by great voice performances, breathtaking animation, and a classic redemption story that is sure to resonate with viewers of every age and cinematic upbringing.
It suffers from some tricky storyline issues and, compared to some of its Pixar siblings, it lacks that elusive extra ingredient that would make it a masterpiece. It doesn’t have the emotional heaviness of Coco, Up, Toy Story 3 or even turning rednor does it have the existential and abstract appeal of Soul or Inside Out.
Nevertheless, Lightyear triumphantly lands as a total package. It’s a blast from start to finish, a heady adventure and a love letter to the sci-fi genre that will captivate adults and children alike. As the first Pixar film to launch exclusively in theaters since 2020’s Onward – the last three have all debuted on Disney Plus – expect Lightyear to rise to infinity and beyond when it arrives.
Lightyear will be released exclusively in cinemas on Friday 17 June.